Andrew Marvell (1621–1678), one of 17th-Century Britain's most illustrious poets.
"Had we but world enough, and time"—with these words, Andrew Marvell begins his impassioned proposal to his "Coy Mistress" to "sport us while we may." In his seductive verse, Marvell draws on a theme made popular by the Roman poet Horace, carpe diem, or "seize the day," a phrase students may remember from the popular film Dead Poets Society. Using the language of courtly love, the poem's speaker warns his lady of time's fleeting nature and the imminence of death, urging her to make the most of their time on earth by consummating their relationship. In this lesson, students will focus on how Marvell's use of tone and imagery serves to promote his theme of fleeting time.
In the process of studying this poem, the student will be able to
Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
This lesson plan involves students reading Marvell's poem "To His Coy Mistress" at home, with an accompanying guiding Annotation Worksheet. This at-home exercise will prepare students for class discussion the next day. Ideally, the teacher will introduce the background material during the first day of class (using either a full or partial day), allow students to read the poem carefully that night using the accompanying guiding materials, and then hold classroom discussion on the second day. Teachers, however, should adjust the lesson plan as necessary to best fit their schedule.
In preparing to teach this lesson, the instructor may benefit from exploring several of EDSITEment's reviewed websites, which offer biographical and contextual information, online versions of the poem, and clear definitions of literary devices in terms understandable by students.
Teachers may begin by introducing Marvell, his life, and the characteristics of metaphysical poetry. Using many of the resources listed in "Preparing to Teach this Lesson," above, briefly detail who Marvell was and provide his historical context. The poem, "To his Coy Mistress," is an invitation using the theme first made popular by the Roman poet Horace: carpe diem (Odes, Book 1.11: "carpe diem quam minimum credula postero," which translates as "seize the day trusting as little as possible in what is to come afterwards"). Students may remember the phrase "carpe diem" from the popular film Dead Poets Society. As you brief students on the general details of this seventeenth-century school, indicate that while the metaphysical poets fell out of fashion for quite some time, they enjoyed renewed attention with the modernists (who they will likely study sometime later).
As the Academy of American Poets' discussion of metaphysical poets points out,
John Donne, along with similar but distinct poets such as George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughn, developed a poetic style in which philosophical and spiritual subjects were approached with reason and often concluded in paradox. This group of writers established meditation—based on the union of thought and feeling sought after in Jesuit Ignatian meditation—as a poetic mode.
This combination of rational thought and feeling reflects Marvell's logical and passionate argument.
Have students read through the poem once, out loud (you may have a different student to read each stanza). Ask them to consider the poem's form, which reveals a bit more about the metaphysical poet's union of "thought and emotion":
Students might note that the poem is made up of 3 stanzas, comprised of rhyming couplets of 20, 12, and 14 lines, respectively. Tell the students that the poem is in the form of a syllogism or logical argument—an argument consisting of a major premise (part one), a minor premise (part two), and a conclusion. For example:
The poem appeals to logic and emotion for its overall effect. Ask students to keep the following question in mind as they continue with the exercises:
What is the main assertion in each stanza of this poem?
This activity can be done as a class, with students working in groups, or—alternatively—as an at-home reading assignment. Return to the poem and ask students to consider the following questions. These questions are also available on the Marvell Annotation Worksheet, available in PDF format and as a combination Online Quiz and Chart. While there are three online versions of the poem, encourage students to use the version of the poem made available via Representative Poetry Online, which includes useful line numbers and annotations.
Before students continue with their individual readings, remind them of a few key literary devices. First, note how an author's choice of tone and image contribute to his theme. Remind students of the following terms:
As students come back from their individual or group reading, begin this activity by reading the entire poem aloud again (or ask students to read a stanza aloud). Remind students that a poem should be read several times in preparation for class discussion. Ask them their impressions of the poem based on their reading. They might provide annotations or pose questions that naturally lead into the discussion of tone, imagery, and theme, but if not, you can use the following questions to help students work through these issues in the poem.
Marvell mixes positive and negative imagery throughout the poem. For a quick visual activity that explains this concept, have students use two different colored highlighters (either digital, in a word processor, or regular ink) and ask them to highlight each image, using one color for positively-worded images, and the other color for negatively-worded images. The first stanza is predominately positive; the second, negative. In the final stanza, the positive and negative imagery literally intertwines (which is rather suggestive in itself). Ask students to consider the following questions:
Ask students to consider the various interpretations of the poem's theme. While students should note the broader themes of time and death, the poet's obvious aim is that of seduction. Remind students about the form of the poem and ask them to reconstruct the overall argument of the syllogism (which they learned about in the first activity). They should move from stanza to stanza, with particular attention to the final stanza of the poem.
As students examine each stanza's building argument, they might note that the syllogism is a bit more complex than the examples provided earlier. Marvell, however, still follows the basic structure. Students might offer an answer akin to the following:
Once they have reconstructed Marvell's argument, they should be able to see how he carefully uses line, rhyme, and stanza to order the poem in a logical framework, while simultaneously offering a passionate appeal to his mistress to consummate their relationship.
Ask students to choose a single metaphor or image and argue why that metaphor or image is appropriate to the stanza, based on their understanding of how each stanza builds Marvell's overall argument.
Use the EDSITEment-reviewed to continue your exploration of other 17th-century poets, in both the metaphysical and cavalier schools.
The EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets has a description of the metaphysical school of poetry with links to other metaphysical poets. Likewise, the Luminarium website, via EDSITEment-reviewed Labyrinth, has a wonderful introduction to the metaphysical poets with links to further reading and other 17th- century poets, such as the Cavalier poets, who were contemporaries of the metaphysical poets.
1-2 class periods